2007 49ers training camp: Lingering questions

The 49ers will begin training camp practices Sunday morning brimming with hope, confidence and high expectations for the upcoming 2007 season. But there still are plenty of questions the team needs to answer over the next month before it can be considered a legitimate contender for the playoffs. Here are eight essential issues that continue to linger over the Niners as the team enters summer camp.

CAN JIM HOSTLER RUN A NFL OFFENSE? It sure looks like it, but the 49ers' new offensive coordinator – a first-timer at the NFL level – still needs to prove it once the games begin. Hostler basically served as Norv Turner's understudy last season, and he provides continuity after being the team's quarterbacks coach the past two seasons. But matching wits in the heat of battle with the best defensive coordinators in the world is another matter altogether, and Hostler's experience in that endeavor will be on the job once the season begins.

HAS ALEX SMITH GRADUATED TO PLAYOFF-CALIBER QB? Despite showing considerable progress, he didn't quite get to that level last season, and the 49ers are unlikely to get to the postseason until he does get to that level. That said, Smith certainly appears on his way, and he'll have much better weaponry to work with than when he arrived in San Francisco. But Smith still needs to take the next step, and nobody can be sure he will until he actually does it. It's an unavoidable fact of the NFL that as the quarterback goes, so goes the team.

CAN THE 49ERS REACH THE NEXT LEVEL WITH THREE NEW COORDINATORS? There will be no grace period for Hostler, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and special teams coordinator Al Everest – all in their first season in those positions with the 49ers – because this team expects a playoff run now. We've already discussed Hostler, and his role probably is most significant of the three. But Manusky also will be running a NFL defense for the first time - and doing it with a new team - so that's no easy task and an adjustment period seems almost inevitable. Everest has proven credentials as a NFL special teams boss, but he'll also be working with new players, not to mention a new team, for the first time.

HOW MUCH WILL SPENDING THE BIG BUCKS PAY OFF? The 49ers committed almost $130 million in inflated contracts – $39.7 million of it guaranteed – to their top five free agents acquired this spring, and they need to get an immediate return on that investment. Guys such as Nate Clements - especially Clements - Aubrayo Franklin, Michael Lewis, Ashlie Lelie and Tully Banta-Cain can't just come in and blend into the woodwork. They need to stand out and become difference-makers on a team that can use a few more of those. Isn't that what they're getting paid for?

WHO'S THE ODD MAN OUT ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE? The 49ers enter training camp with the same five starters along the offensive line as last year, but with young talents Adam Snyder, David Baas and rookie Joe Staley waiting in the wings and breathing up the backs of the incumbents, there's a better than even chance one of them will push into the lineup before the season gets too many games old, perhaps sending one of the erstwhile regulars to the bench to stay. The increased competition can only make the line better, but on a unit such as this, you don't necessarily want to mess with continuity. But as Nolan always says, the best players will play.

CAN MIKE NOLAN HANDLE A GAME IN THE CLUTCH? It's a legitimate question, and one that will be a huge factor in the several close games the 49ers figure to become involved in this season. Nolan has done a tremendous job rebuilding the Niners as football CEO, and the team's head honcho has made gradual strides as a game-day coach. But he also made some crucial decisions that backfired last season, and that can account for the difference between winning and losing – and between making the playoffs or not.

CAN VERNON DAVIS BECOME THE NFL'S NEXT BIG THING AT TIGHT END? If spring drills are any indication, Davis could become Alex Smith's top target in the San Francisco passing game, and how many tight ends in the NFL can say that with their teams? Well, there's only a select few, and perhaps only one that truly can be called elite - San Diego's Antonio Gates. If Davis can start playing near that level and living up to his vast potential, it will surely have a positive impact on all those around him and provide a lift to the entire offense.

WILL THE 49ERS EVER GET A NEW STADIUM? OK, so this question doesn't have anything to do with how the 49ers perform on the field this season. Or does it? In the back of everybody's minds, the Niners want to know where they'll be playing home games in the future. The team is moving forward with plans for a new stadium in Santa Clara and San Francisco officials still want in on the action, but it might still be wise to take a believe-it-when-you-see-it approach on that one - a question that figures to linger over the team throughout the season and at least into 2008.

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